Sharing With Enemies

Posted On: 2021-04-19

By Mark

One design idea that I find particularly interesting is that of having a single shared resource that is used by opponents competing against each other. Although it does come up reasonably often in physical games (ie. card or board games), it usually emerges as a consequence of physical constraints rather than a deliberate design*. In the realm of digital games, however, it's quite rare to see systems that make the player share resources with their enemies, and rarer still to see it appear as a core design pillar**.

Sharing By Accident

The idea of sharing a resource with an enemy was something I first encountered as something of a systems quirk in the classic JRPG Final Fantasy 6. Although the game did not explicitly share resources between the player and their foes, it did have actions that would decrease enemy resources (health or magic points) and recover the same amount for one player character*. In my personal experience with the game, I came to rely heavily on such actions, eventually calculating my own resource costs in terms of what was available to take from my foes. The experience was quite fascinating for me, as it awakened thoughts and emotions I hadn't experienced in other games. I yearned to see more - to play a game where I needed to share resources with my adversaries at its heart, rather than as a mere byproduct of other systems.

Since then, I've seen few digital games that do more than dabble in this space. While it's common for action-heavy games (such as Doom (2016)) to reward players for defeating foes by restoring player health, enemies can't spend that resource themselves, so calling that "shared" would be a stretch (even when players are technically taking the health from the enemy.) Similarly, some simulation-heavy games allow enemies to pick up and use items that players also can pick up, but there's generally no strategic or tactical choice there, as the tiny opportunity cost of picking an item up makes it always optimal. To put things more broadly, when sharing happens by accident in design, it seems to be haphazard, and reveal little of what could be seen in a more deliberate design.

Sharing By Design

Strategy games often feature competing over shared resources - and this is perhaps the most explored aspect of shared resources in games. Humanity has competing over physical access to finite resources for millennia, and that specific conflict has been ported directly into many strategy games - often serving as the inciting incident for direct physical conflict between two powers. Unfortunately, the adversarial aspects of such interactions dwarf the sharing aspects: speaking personally, every time I've seen two opposing players attempt to mine the same resource, it has always escalated to (in-game) violence.

Market simulations are another area which feature (de facto) sharing of a resource, as individual players' purchases/sales impact market prices for all participants. Offworld Trading Company is perhaps the best example of this, as (normally) all players are in adversarial relationships with each other, and the purchase/sale of goods, locations, and company shares are the primary actions a player can perform. Even more important, however, is that OTC treats the idea of competing without physically fighting with an enemy as a core design pillar, making it one of the few games that can claim shared resources as a fundamental part of its design.

Looking Forward

With so few games in this design space, it seems to me that there's still a lot more left to explore. This seems like a particularly profound shame, as the challenge of sharing limited resources with a (perceived) enemy increasingly appears to be the defining challenge of the 21st century. It's my hope that, as I explore some of this design space in my current project, I will uncover a bit more of what it has to offer - providing players with opportunities to learn and experience things that might not otherwise be possible.